The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Gourmet Vegetables

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

Tomatoes are the most commonly grown backyard vegetable. However one look at garden magazines, catalogs and restaurant menus shows gardeners and gourmets are expanding their palettes. Move over tomatoes–here comes radicchio and mini vegetables.

Radicchio is a unique, tangy flavored leafy vegetable that has been grown in Italy for years. The heads are used in salads, as mixed greens or may be grilled. Although there are many colors and forms of radicchio, the tight heads of wine red leaves with white midribs are most often seen. Radicchio may not be the easiest of the leafy crops to grow. However it's certainly worth the challenge.

Traditionally radicchio was grown as a fall crop since it prefers the cool weather and will even produce after frosts. Newer varieties such as 'Rubello' and 'Firebird' have been developed to tolerate the summer heat. 'Giulio' was one of the first varieties developed for spring planting. It is vigorous and resistant to bolting. Bolting refers to flowering–not what you want in a plant grown for its leaves. 'Caesar' can be planted in early summer to produce its wine colored uniform heads with white midribs. 'Milano' and 'Red Verona' are the best known Italian varieties. In the summer they form loose green rosettes that turn into brilliant little red heads in the cool of fall. Some people prefer to cut them back in late fall one inch above the crown and let small heads quickly form.

Mini vegetables have often been used in Asian cooking, but are showing up in all kinds of trendy restaurants. For their small size they command a high price. The grower sacrifices yield and pounds per acre just to bring those sweet morsels to your table. Many mini vegetables are not really miniature vegetables, just vegetables picked before they reach maturity. Baby vegetables tend to be milder and more tender. Home gardeners can pick some of their crop as baby vegetables and leave some to mature.

The tiny ears of corn in Chinese cooking are really just immature sweet corn. Any variety can be used although some varieties are listed specifically for baby corn. Sweet corn can be planted closer than usual at six inch centers and every other plant can be harvested for mini corn. Despite Tom Hanks performance in the movie "Big," the whole mini corn cob is edible.

Timing is important for mini vegetables. Harvest baby corn within two or three days of the appearance of the silks. To guide your timing look for the tassels on top of the plants. When the tassels arrive, the silks appear within a few days.

Any summer squash varieties should be picked within 24 hours of flowering. Zucchini should be picked before it is more than four inches long. Not all vegetables are tasty as babies so use those varieties recommended to be picked young. Here are a few varieties that make good mini vegetables or can be picked as babies.

  • Carrots - 'Short and Sweet,' 'Little Finger'
  • Eggplant- 'Millionaire'
  • Lettuce - Romaine 'Little Gem,' 'Burpee Bibb'
  • Okra - 'Clemson Spineless'
  • Pea - 'Snowbird'
  • Pumpkin - 'Jack-be-Little'
  • Radish - 'Cherry Belle,' 'Burpee White'
  • Summer squash - 'Pic-N-Pic hybrid,' 'Sunburst hybrid'
  • Tomato - 'Sundrop,' 'Sweet 100'
  • Turnip - 'Tokyo Cross,' 'Purple Top,' 'White Globe'

The U of I publication Vegetable Gardening in the Midwest is a great resource. It will be available at the Armchair Gardening program on February 21.

I'm sure Roger Swain, host of PBS TV Victory Garden will share his thoughts on vegetables and gardening trends during his presentation Monday, February 21. Join Swain and local garden authors at the Clarion hotel in Champaign starting at 6:30 pm. The $20 fee includes hors d'oeuvres and book signings. Call 333-7672 for more information.

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